Sustainable development, the ecosystem approach, environmental by 38q3rm9


									    Sustainable development – supporting ideas and initiatives                                                Hambrey Consulting

         Sustainable development, the ecosystem approach, environmental
                      capacity and the precautionary principle

Sustainable development is now a key policy objective for most government
departments and agencies, and increasingly for private corporations. The basic
concept is simple and appealing, a fundamental moral rule: we should ensure that in
all our activities we do not harm the interests of others, or compromise their
opportunities, now or in the future1. Overlaid on this moral rule – and emphasised to
a greater or lesser degree in different definitions – is the notion that natural
resources, ecosystems, and the services they provide are both vulnerable and
limited, so that in order to deliver on the moral rule, we must better understand, and
be sensitive to, the state of those systems and resources, and our impacts on them.

The need for better understanding of natural systems is implicit in the term
“ecosystem approach”, which emphasises the need to understand the network of
connections within natural systems and the potential knock-on effects on the wider
system when we disturb or destroy particular elements. This will require greater
awareness of the potential for knock on effects, greater scientific understanding of
the relationships, and greater integration of associated management systems2. Given
the complexity of the relationships, large uncertainties will necessarily remain, and
this in turn has spawned the various ideas and approaches associated with the
“precautionary principle”.

Assuming that we can relate particular human activities to specific changes or likely
changes in natural systems, the inevitable question arises as to how much change is
acceptable. Are there limits to environmental change beyond which economic
opportunities are lost in the short or long term? Are there limits to environmental
change beyond which fundamental services3 will be compromised irrevocably? Or,
on a less critical but nonetheless important level, are there degrees of change which
we as a society are not prepared to accept for social or cultural reasons?

It is generally agreed that there are indeed such limits, and a range of terms, such as
“ecosystem integrity”, environmental capacity, carrying capacity, and environmental
carrying capacity have been coined to formalise this idea.

The key to applying these ideas usefully and convincingly may be to consider them in
relation to four broad (and overlapping) categories of environmental change:

1. Change which seriously threatens basic ecosystem services or “life support
2. Change which reduces economic opportunity now or in the future;
3. Change which threatens the livelihoods or interests of particular groups in
4. Change which is of aesthetic, social or cultural concern.

1The most widely quoted definition of sustainable development is that found in Brundtland, H. Our Common Future, (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, for the World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987), but many national and international agencies and organisations
have developed definitions which elaborate the basic theme.
2 Hence the “official” UK government and 2002 WorldSummit definition: “a strategy for integrated management of land, water and living
resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way”.
3   such as clean air, clean or productive water, flood buffering, carbon storage, productive soil etc
Sustainable development – supporting ideas and initiatives                                               Hambrey Consulting

For the first of these the challenge will be how to address scientific uncertainty and
the limits of knowledge. And knowledge of these systems remains very limited. For
example, as discussed at a recent conference in Scotland4, the relationships
between biodiversity and specific ecosystem services are very poorly understood.

For the other three, the difficulties of predicting change are compounded by the
difficulty of defining acceptable limits to change – since they have both technical and
social/cultural dimensions.

Taken together these various considerations imply a less techno-centric approach to
policy and practice. We need better mechanisms to bring together science and
society to generate an informed consensus on issues like carrying capacity, or the
“conservation” of particular ecosystem services. We need to be better at analysing
and communicating uncertainty and risk, and the distribution of possible costs and
benefits associated with overall strategies or particular actions. We need to be more
strategic in our assessment of cumulative change, and agree in advance acceptable
limits, even when the scientific underpinning is limited.

The detailed nature of these approaches and mechanisms will depend on local
circumstances, and implementation will not always be easy. In many cases these
approaches have not been used in the past because they make life more complex,
and government too expensive. A balance between time and cost on the one hand
and thoroughness on the other will need to be found – appropriate to the severity of
the issues and the resources available.

       4   The Future of Biodiversity in the Uplands. Scottish Biodiversity Forum, Battleby, Friday 8th December 2006

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